Dear Mr. Dad: By the time my parents were my age (I’m 27), they had three children. But I’m not married, don’t have any children, and don’t have any plans to. I know there’s been a trend over the past few decades toward having kids at a later age, but in talking with my friends – many of whom feel the same way I do – it seems that there might be a trend toward not having a family at all. Am I right?
A: You are absolutely right. Young people of your generation (millennials – those born between 1982 and 2002) have some very different ideas about family than their parents and grandparents. Back in 1992, 78 percent of college grads (79 percent of women and 78 percent of men) had plans to either adopt or have children. Twenty years later, in 2002, just 42 percent (41 percent of women, 42 percent of men) intended to become parents. I honestly find that a little scary. With so many people choosing not to have children, who’s going to be making the Social Security contributions that will support those millennials when they retire?
I had a chance to interview Stewart Friedman, the founding director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, who conducted the study I just mentioned. According to Friedman, there are a number of factors that are pushing young men and women to opt out of parenthood. He writes about them in his new book, “Baby Bust: New Choices for Men and Women in Work and Family.”
To start with, there’s the massive amount of student debt that today’s college grads are carrying – debt that may take decades to pay off. Today’s young people “understand that raising children, and surely sending them to school, is expensive,” Friedman told me. “They are therefore less willing to take on this responsibility and are holding back accordingly.” Our continuing financial crisis – despite all the stories we hear about how the economy is supposedly turning around – is making even more people delay or cancel plans to expand their family.
Then there’s the conflict between work and family. College grads today and 20 years ago all felt that it would be hard to balance the two. But today’s grads face unique challenges. Since technology makes it possible for work to be done pretty much anywhere, Americans are competing against people all over the world. Technology also blurs the boundaries between work life and family life, meaning more work hours. In fact, millennials expect to work an average of 14 hour hours per week more than their peers of 20 years ago (72/week today vs. 58 back then).
Friedman identified another interesting shift over the past 20 years: a changing definition of family. Instead of focusing on having children of their own, today’s young men and women are finding more satisfaction and enjoyment with their family of origin (parents, siblings and so on). They’re also putting a lot more emphasis on friends, social networks and workplace relationships.
I don’t want to get all mushy on you, but even though I get your reasons, it makes me sad that you and so many of your peers are going to miss out on having children. In my view, Americans need to make some serious changes. Two of the most important ones would be to make family leave more widely available and do something to rein in the outrageous cost of higher education – and the student debt that goes along with it.